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Tony Travers: Scotland Brexit stand-off shows limits of devolution

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The stand-off between the Scottish administration and the UK government at Westminster is a constitutional showdown of major proportions. 

The logic of the post-1999 (as amended after the 2014 independence referendum) settlement is being tested because Brexit will mean transferring many powers from Brussels to London.

Wales has recently settled with Westminster over the issue. Its government has weaker cards to play. The Welsh voted for Brexit, while Scots strongly supported ‘remain’. In addition, Wales is more dependent on the UK taxpayer than Scotland.

The Scots fear the UK government will simply use Brexit as another excuse to horde power at the centre, with only a vague promise to transfer former EU competences to Edinburgh at some point in the future. The Scottish Parliament has put forward its own version of a ‘withdrawal’ bill to override the UK government in Scotland. There is uncertainty as to how EU, UK and Scottish legislation interact, both before and after Brexit. The Supreme Court has been asked to rule on the question of whether Scotland can pass its own withdrawal act.

History suggests the Scottish government is right to be cautious. Apart from Labour’s radical devolutionary reforms of 1999 and 2000, successive administrations have been very cautious about devolution. English combined authorities and city-regional mayors have been drip-fed powers and still lack realistic resource-raising capacity.

The UK has no written constitution, which means that a major governmental disruption such as leaving the EU has to be handled in the usual ad hoc way. The Cabinet dictates terms, albeit on this occasion without being able to come to a consistent view on virtually any aspect of Brexit.

Looking ahead, the relative weakness of the Welsh and Scottish governments is instructive for devolution within England. Whatever powers and finance are given to English combined authorities, the government remains in a position to withdraw or amend devolution at any time. Of course, Northern Ireland’s privileged influence is a wholly different matter, being derived from the DUP’s ‘balance of power’ stranglehold on Theresa May’s government.

What a mess. Devolution means what the UK government and Parliament choose it to mean at any point in time. The UK remains a centralised unitary state.

Tony Travers, director, LSE London

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It's a sad irony that if the SNP had their way the powers would remain centralised in Brussels with none coming to Holyrood at all.

    At least they are getting some say over a whole range of new areas. There are solid grounds for retaining some at UK level as these will be relevant to future trade deals.
    https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/686991/20180307_FINAL__Frameworks_analysis_for_publication_on_9_March_2018.pdf

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